Snap … crackle … pop! No, that's not my breakfast cereal; it's the unappetizing sound my jaw makes after a night of teeth clenching, most likely caused by the stress of balancing my life as a wife, freelancer, and new mom. Up to 15 percent of U.S. adults suffer from chronic facial pain related to problems with the jaw, namely the temporomandibular joint, or TMJ, according to the American Dental Association. Although some TMJ dysfunction results from injury or misalignment, daily tension is a common trigger that may manifest in subconscious teeth grinding or clenching, also known as bruxism. Symptoms include jaw pain, morning headaches, earaches, and worn or chipped teeth.
Typically, dentists treat bruxism with a customized mouth splint. However, "most splints are geared more toward teeth protection," says Carrie Corey, LAc, LMT, a massage therapist and acupuncturist in Bethesda, Maryland. "Without further support from other therapies, the night guard alone doesn't fully address the cause of grinding. In my case, after about two weeks my jaw simply learned to clench the splint itself. That's when I turned to natural therapies for relief—and took the bite out of my jaw pain for good."
By balancing the energy around the jaw, "acupuncture addresses the root causes of grinding and clenching, such as stress, anger, and frustration, making it an excellent treatment option," says Corey. "Since tension decreases the flow of blood and energy—qi [pronounced chee]—in the jaw area, needles can be placed directly in tender points to relax specific areas of muscle."
Dentists who incorporated acupuncture into their practice found that 85 percent of patients reported benefits after an average of 3.4 treatments, with a 75 percent average reduction of pain (Acupuncture in Medicine, 2006, vol. 24, no. 1).
During a session for TMJ pain, needles are inserted in acupoints along the channels that flow through the face, neck, or jaw, including the head, arms, and legs. Although many people experience positive results after only one session, don't give up if relief isn't immediate. "I usually recommend that patients allow six to eight visits before assessing if acupuncture will or will not be effective," says Leslie Axelrod, ND, LAc, an acupuncturist in Scottsdale, Arizona.
In this gentle form of bodywork, a naturopathic doctor or massage therapist manipulates the craniosacral rhythm—the motion of cerebrospinal fluid within the membrane around the brain and spinal cord—encouraging it to flow freely.
Jaw pain is often the result of chronic tension and stress, which is held in the memory of the fascia and muscles surrounding the temporomandibular joint, says Emily J. Telfair, ND, CMT, a naturopathic doctor in Baltimore. "Craniosacral therapy facilitates the release and opening of the tense connective-tissue web holding the jaw in a painful pattern. The practitioner uses gentle touch to unwind and stretch the fascia, which allows the underlying muscles to relax." Because it's gentle, craniosacral therapy performed by a trained professional is safe for anyone. However, if your jaw pain is new or is the result of an injury, get examined by a medical doctor first to assess possible contributing factors.
Massaging jaw muscles brings immediate relief—and may lead to long-lasting results, especially if your therapist has experience with jaw pain." Ask if they know how to do intra-oral work," suggests Ray Wanjura, LMT, of the Austin School of Massage in Austin, Texas. That means the therapist puts on a rubber glove and massages the muscles inside your mouth. "The jaw joint can become misaligned when muscles aren't working properly, he says, but working on the muscle tissue will allow the joint to realign and stabilize naturally."
Get it together
Although each of these treatments is effective alone, experts highly recommend utilizing them in concert. "Each therapy helps release restrictions in the body from a different angle, thus holistically treating the individual," Telfair explains. So for best results, combine alternative therapies.
Freelance writer and regular contributor Kelli Rosen lives in Monkton, Maryland.